Is it easy for our foreign guests to travel by public transport in Latvia, Estonia and Finland?

Summer is the best time of the year for rural tourism to relax from a city rush and enjoy the beauty of Latvian nature. Peaceful countryside idyll, bird watching, trying local specialities and participation in traditional arts and crafts workshops – these are just a few of activities that foreign guest wish to experience, thus giving preference to visit the countries of Central Baltic Sea – Latvia, Estonia and Finland instead of many other attractive travel destinations.

To find out the viewpoints of foreign guests in the above mentioned countries regarding their experience of traveling by public transport, the partners of INTERREG Central Baltic Sea “CAITO – Meta cluster for attracting the Japanese tourism market” project group conducted structured interviews with a wide range of rural tourism stakeholders. The central focus of the CAITO project is Japanese tourists, since the number of their visits is increasing due to growing concerns of geopolitical instability in other so far popular tourism destinations in Europe. Changes in lifestyle also play important role – there is an increasing trend to spend more time in fresh air, taste eco products and try local traditions, which is available outside cities in rural areas.

Tourists who have visited Latvia, Estonia and Finland admit that in the cities public transport system is good, various modes of public transport are optimally integrated to meet the needs of passengers. However, in remote rural areas the situation is not as optimistic – there is a need for more frequent trains/buses, and timetables of various modes of transport often are not integrated causing problems with travel planning.

As tourists often wish to see as many sightseeing objects of one area as possible, it is highly important to have a well-planned route, which efficiently combines several modes of transport. Research results show that currently there are just a few internet sites available where travellers can obtain information about all transport services’ providers, as each transport enterprise mainly provides information only about its own routes, thus travellers often have problems to combine routes of two or more different transport service providers. Moreover, buying tickets is another challenge as, unlike in most of cities, in rural areas traffic time-tables (directions, departure/arrival times) are available only in official language but not in English. A significant problem for travellers in Latvia is that, in accordance with the Latvian State Language Law (Article 21 of the State Language Law), all information that is intended for the public and provided by state or local government institutions must be in Latvian only with a few exceptions (for example, information in international transport centres).

It is easy to find information in Google, but internet access at affordable prices is also essential, which often is a problem for people outside the EU. Visitors to Europe usually have some experience in rural tourism and thus are better prepared for exploring certain places, but most Japanese tourists do not know that there are a lot of nice places in the countryside in our region, so it would be helpful to add transport links with short explanations in English to internet sites, so that visitors themselves could find the necessary information.

Although electronic tickets are accepted on buses and trains of almost all transport companies in the cities, they should, in most cases, be printed on paper. Moreover, it is problematic to purchase tickets for bus ride in rural areas, and although tickets can be bought on-the-go if there are free seats, for many travellers, especially traveller groups, this does not seem a safe way how to plan their route.

One of the research findings suggests that, currently rural bus networks are designed for local people to be used on a daily basis. In particular, in the remote rural areas, “on-demand transport services”/ “dial-a-bus” are increasingly being introduced, resulting in less frequent access to scheduled transport services. This makes it increasingly difficult for tourists to develop timely travel routes and buy tickets well in advance before the date of the trip.

As foreign travellers admit, although people in rural areas are usually kind and responsive, for them it is often difficult to communicate in English; thus, if the bus driver does not speak English, it is almost impossible for foreign tourists to find out at which stop they should get off. In this regard, positive changes are expected in 2021, when Latvian bus route contracts will be renewed as part of the procurement procedure, by which it is intended to provide a stop announcement system on buses in audible and written form on video display screens.

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